Bethlehem (AsiaNews) - Each year, an atmosphere of celebration accompanies Christmas in Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born. Despite the tragic events of Gaza and tensions elsewhere in the Middle East, some 75,000 pilgrims are expected in the Holy Land.
Samir Qumsieh, journalist and head of Al-Mahed Nativity TV in Bethlehem, a Catholic broadcaster, said that traffic has shut down the city. All of its streets and squares are decked out with lights and decorations.
"Here everyone celebrates Christmas," he said. "Bethlehem has a Muslim majority and the Muslim community actively participates in the many initiatives of the season."
Today, hundreds of Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, will watch the lightning of the Christmas tree in the centre of the city, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as well as other political leaders will take part in the celebration. On 24 December, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas will take part in Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity.
According to Samir Qumsieh, the current positive atmosphere is only a respite compared to what Christians experience every day in the Holy Land, especially in the Palestinian territories.
"The participation of political leaders in Christmas celebrations is not enough to calm Christian fears in Bethlehem," he explained. "In light of the economic situation and social discrimination, they continue to emigrate."
"We are victims of the divisions between Hamas and Fatah and of Israel's repressive policies. We can no longer live much longer in their situation."
The two Palestinian factions are far from real reconciliation. The growth of Hamas in the West Bank is complicating the situation, the journalist said, with the danger that Christians might be crushed by Islamic extremism.
"Even the recognition of Palestine at the UN has not changed anything on the ground," Qumsieh said. "Instead of going back to the negotiating table, Israel used Mahmoud Abbas' action to justify thousands of new homes in the West Bank, which probably had been planned for quite some time, and were not part of a vendetta as many analysts say."
For Qumsieh, religion and politics interact in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. One example is the call by Hamas leader for jihad against the Israelis, accused of occupying sacred Muslim land, and statements by right-wing Israeli leaders who use the Bible to claim the territories. Christians are caught in-between and their voice is increasingly weak.
"Unfortunately, the growth of armed Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East does not help," he said. "After the exodus from Iraq, Christian Churches could now disappear from Syria. In the Holy Land we are small percentage that continues to decline."
Since 1967, about 35 per cent of the Palestinian Christian population has emigrated. By 2020, they should be only 1.6 per cent of the total population.
Most Christian families live from religious tourism, which employs thousands of people. Yesterday, the Episcopal Commission for Pilgrimages of the Assembly of Ordinary Bishops issued an appeal to encourage pilgrims to visit the Holy Land. "Do not be afraid to visit your Mother Church," the statement said. "The itinerary of your pilgrimage is safe and far from dangers."
Israel's Tourism minister said that tourists have access to a free 15-20 minute shuttle bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, on 24 and 25 December.
The authorities hope to reach a record 3.3 visitors in 2012, almost a million more than last year. More than 60 per cent of them are Christian pilgrims, who represent, according to the ministry, the greatest resource for Israeli and Palestinian tourism.
The presence of Christians and pilgrims in the Holy Land is a resource for interfaith dialogue as well. Last Tuesday, Mgr Fouad Twal, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, lighted a Christmas tree for the first time at Jaffa Gate, in the Old City.
The ceremony brought together various bishops, priests, religious and believers as well as many Jews and Muslims. (S.C.)